CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan authorities have freed a prominent opposition activist jailed for four years just days after an anti-government politician died in state custody. Lorent Saleh was immediately escorted to the airport and put on a flight to Madrid with Spanish government officials.
Upon arriving to Madrid’s airport Saturday, Saleh told media and a small group of exuberant Venezuelan opposition supporters that “the fight goes on.”
“What I ask is that we all think about the fact that in Venezuela there are innocent people behind bars, people that have been kidnapped and who deserve to cross the same bridge that I have,” Saleh said.
Saleh said that he didn’t know he was being released until the last minute.
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“They had already put me in a police car and we were heading to the airport when they told me,” Saleh said. “Today I have been able to see the dawn for the first time in four years, and I am still coming to grips with that.”
News of Saleh’s release also came as a shock to his supporters, and even his mother, who rushed to a Caracas jail expecting to receive her son only to learn he had been sent to Europe.
“I didn’t know anything about this. I thought he’d be turned over here, but what’s important is that he’s free,” a weeping Yamile Saleh told journalists outside the jail.
“He tried to calm me, saying he is with people he trusts,” she said after speaking to her son by phone. “We have to take care of Lorent’s life. There are things I can’t answer.”
Saleh thanked Spain for its role in his release and said that he hoped to see his mother soon.
A government truth commission said Saleh was at risk of causing harm to himself after being evaluated for suicidal tendencies while imprisoned. It said it was decided he should be released as part of efforts to ease political tensions in the South American nation.
Spain released a statement following Saleh’s arrival saying that diplomat Juan Pablo de Laiglesia had traveled with Saleh. It added that De Laiglesia had been in Caracas from Oct. 9-12 while “he held meetings with members of the (Venezuelan) government, representatives of the opposition, civil society organizations, and Spanish associations and companies.”
Saleh’s mother had mounted an international campaign to secure her son’s release.
Saleh, 30, was arrested in Colombia in 2014 and extradited by then Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos after appearing on a video phone call leaked by Venezuelan authorities bragging to an unknown person about plans to hire sharpshooters to sow unrest in Venezuela.
Santos, a future Nobel Peace Prize winner, was at the time seeking to curry favor with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who was sponsoring peace talks between Santos’ government and leftist rebels.
Further fueling the Venezuelan government’s narrative that Saleh was plotting terrorist acts with international support, he was also photographed alongside prominent right-wing politicians such as former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
His extradition was widely condemned by human rights groups, who argued he could never get a fair trial in Venezuela and would be subjected to harsh conditions of confinement.
In 2017, he was one of several anti-government activists the opposition considers political prisoners awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European parliament.
His release capped a tumultuous week that saw another anti-government activist, Caracas area councilman Fernando Alban, fall from the 10th floor of a police building where he was being held.
Authorities have called Alban’s death a suicide, but opposition leaders have alleged — so far without evidence — that he was murdered while in custody. Several foreign governments and the United Nations have called for an independent investigation to determine whether foul play was involved.
Alban was arrested last week at Caracas’ international airport upon arriving from a trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York to press foreign officials to apply more pressure on Maduro’s government. The government said he was being investigated for his alleged involvement in an August attack on Maduro with explosives-laden drones.
Spain said in its statement that it considered Saleh’s release “the correct decision by the Venezuelan government to move in the correct direction of helping generate a climate of trust.”